Friday, February 25, 2011

Rebuilding Wolves Closer Than Most Think


It's extremely hard for me to gauge the state's opinion of the Timberwolves. Everyone of course agrees they are terrible this year, but I've heard extremely varying opinions on the Wolves future. I've realized over the last two years alone I've gone from extremely optimistic (Rubio for Foye and Mike Miller? Kahn was a God) to fairly pessimistic (Flynn over Curry and Wes over DMC... Kahn was a moron) to most recently very pessimistic (Rubio's been terrible in Europe! Beasley's playing out of position. No guards whatsoever). So I decided to take a look at just how far away I think the Wolves are, mostly so I can determine once and for all how I feel about the Wolves future.

There's no denying the team is very young, and they have a lot of high draft picks on the roster. Trading Corey Brewer for Anthony Randolph was a steal, and in my opinion will be arguably a better trade in two years than even the Michael Beasley trade. But there's also no denying Wolves GM David Kahn has now whiffed horribly in consecutive drafts. Drafting Ricky Rubio at #5 was awesome at the time, and even if we had to wait two years, it really didn't matter. But when the team drafted Jonny Flynn at #6 over Steph Curry, there really was no explanation that made sense. There were rumors that Curry's people told Kahn he wasn't going to workout in Minnesota because he didn't want to play here. If these rumors were true, which I suspect they were, the team hasn't publicly used that as an excuse. But that's because they know that it's ridiculous when you have an entire college basketball season (or in Curry's case three years worth) of tape to make a draft pick based on a workout in your building with or without other players.

However, Kahn's mistakes are for another time. I could rant about all the simple moves Kahn has screwed up, and I could rave about all the complicated, three-team, asset-acquiring trades Kahn seems to get the Wolves involved in to steal some talent for nothing.

As of now, here's the current Wolves roster:
PG: Flynn, Luke Ridnour, Sebastian Telfair 
SG: Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington
SF: Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Lazar Heyward
PF: Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver
C: Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic, Eddy Curry
Telfair and Curry are expiring contracts that will not be with the team next year. However, it's clear the team will need to start packaging some of their assets to acquire a key player in the near future. With possibly three first round picks again this coming season, the team simply won't have enough roster spots for everyone. Of course, the team could draft a few European players and stash them in Europe while holding their rights for the next few years.

Basketball stats are tricky, and certainly not nearly as detailed as baseball stats. There are some solid stats, such as John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rater (PER) but even a stat-lover like myself understands there are definitely flaws in the system.

But because of the lack of truly available AND easy to understand basketball stats, Hollinger's PER is going to be my guideline to try to determine how far the Wolves are from competing.

A quick look at Hollinger's top 10 PER players seems to show just how bad the talent around Kevin Love is. He ranks as the fifth most efficient player in the league, one spot ahead of Kobe Bryant. Hollinger also calcuates an EWA for each player, which is Estimated Wins Averaged. A lot of people consider this the "VORP*" of basketball stats, but again there are simply too many minor flaws for me to cite it as often as I would cite VORP in a baseball post.

*VORP, or Value over Replacement Player, is an extremely accurate and effective statistic for baseball. If you are reading this and don't know VORP, a simple Google search will give you all the answers you need.

If we're using EWA, Love again comes in fifth, tied with Kevin Durant at 13.6 EWA. Of course, the Timberwolves have just 13 wins all season. As far as I understand Hollinger's EWA, it's not what he thinks Love is worth over a full season but rather how Love has performed to this point. The number goes up the more you play, which helps eliminate the low-minute, high-efficiency players that don't make a huge difference.

Based on Hollinger's EWA, Love's teammates than would have been worth -.6 EWA to this point, but that's not the case either. I realize the stat is much more complex than I'm making it out to be, but that's simply an example of one major flaw in the system.

However, PER is more reliable than most. A look at the five best teams in the league to this point:
San Antonio 47-10
Boston 41-14

Miami 42-16
Dallas 41-16

Chicago 39-17
According to Hollinger's PER, here's a look at the players on each team inside the top 50:
San Antonio : Manu Ginobli (20), Tim Duncan (21), Tony Parker (28)
Boston: Kevin Garnett (23), Paul Pierce (35), Rajon Rondo (48)
Miami: LeBron James (1), Dwyane Wade (3), Chris Bosh (32)
Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki (9), Tyson Chandler (47)
Chicago: Derrick Rose (13), Carlos Boozer (26), Joakim Noah (36)
Other than the Mavericks, every other top 5 team has at least 3 of the 50 most productive players in the league. So, more than likely the Timberwolves will need to have three extremely productive players to become an elite team.

Kevin Love is clearly elite. The Wolves need to either develop or acquire two more top-50 efficient players, though, before they'll even be considered contenders. Michael Beasley has been solid this season, and extremely entertaining, and the talent is certainly there for him to emerge as an efficient third option on a top team. The question of course is if Beasley can develop into a top 30-efficient player. Let's take a look at how much Beasley would have to improve to get to that level:

Steph Curry ranks 30th this season in PER, at 19.99. So Beasley will likely need to become a 20-PER player to be top-30 efficient. Currently he's at 16.32. For all the compliments about how well Beasley has played, he's been about as efficient as last season. It certainly doesn't help that he's playing out of position at the 3, but the fact is Beasley still has a long ways to go to become a top-30 player. Luckily, because Love is so good, Beasley could be barely inside the top 50 and still be a huge part of the future.

Brook Lopez ranks 50th this season, at 18.31. That's still quite a bit more productive than Beasley has been, but as a 22-year-old tweener Beasley was expected to have some growing pains as he learned to play defense. Hollinger projected an 18.75 PER out of Beasley prior to this season, so if he can reach that potential he's definitely a fine choice for a third option.

The reason the Timberwolves have the league's second worst record though is because Beasley has been nowhere close to even a third best option this year, and he's being used as the team's main option. Maybe that will help Beasley develop quicker, which is fine, since this season is a lost one anyways.

But the team undoubtedly needs to find a #2 option. Most people consider Love to be that, with the team in need of a true number one type player. I agree the team needs to find a dynamic scorer, but as far as efficiency goes even a volume scorer like Monta Ellis might be able to fill the role. The Wolves are banking on Ricky Rubio coming over and becoming another elite option, and that's definitely still possible. But if the team could have somehow found a way to land Monta Ellis at the deadline, a Rubio arrival would now be considered a bonus.

Even if the team would have had to give up Beasley to get Ellis, it would have been a solid move because the team would be upgrading their third option while holding out hope Rubio will either become the second option or be used to acquire that second option. With another lottery pick this coming season, and the possible arrival of Rubio, the team has the chance to contend for at least a playoff spot very soon.

The Wolves will likely have a shot at Harrison Barnes or Perry Jones, and those two would be perfect fits to play the 3 for this Wolves team. That would allow the Wolves to shop Beasley to find a high scoring 2-guard (like Ellis) and if Rubio came over the team would suddenly look a lot better.
PG: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Jonny Flynn
SG: Monta Ellis, Martell Webster
SF: Harrison Barnes, Wes Johnson, Lazar Heyward
PF: Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver
C: Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic
The team could also potentially add two more first round picks to that roster as well, although those picks are unlikely to be very strong in a weak draft so it may be better if the protections the picks carry kick in and allow the Wolves to get the pick next season instead, when they'll be without their own.

If Randolph develops, the team is long enough in other positions to go with a starting lineup of Rubio/Ellis/Barnes/Randolph/Love that could simply run teams out of the gym.

I think it's time to start to get cautiously optimistic about our Wolves, a few simple fixes to this roster and we could be a potential playoff team in a suddenly much weaker Western Conference. And if the rebuilding doesn't work and they need to start over, well, at least we've had so many losing seasons over the last two decades that it won't come as a surprise or even a disappointment. Sadly, it's what's expected.